(Reuters) – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen mastered the treacherous conditions at a rain-soaked Spa-Francorchamps to seize pole position in a crash-interrupted qualifying session for the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix on Saturday.
The Dutchman scythed through the spray in one minute, 59.765 seconds with George Russell, having fended off the third-placed Mercedes of championship leader Lewis Hamilton, falling just 0.321 seconds short of a shock maiden pole in his Williams.
Widely tipped to join Hamilton at Mercedes next year, Russell’s efforts put the Grove-based team back on the front row and kept the seven-time champion from starting alongside his Red Bull title rival.
“We needed that,” Verstappen, who trails Hamilton by eight points in the overall standings after his 33-point lead was wiped out in just two races, said over the team radio.
“It’s been a really tricky qualifying, hard to keep the car on track,” added the 23-year-old in a television interview later.
“But at the end we were first, that’s of course the most important.”
The pole was the ninth of Verstappen’s career and sixth this season. He will be happy to have Russell as a buffer between him and his Mercedes rival.
The 23-year-old Briton, keen to make his case for a Mercedes promotion, will not be holding back even if his Williams cannot match Verstappen and Hamilton’s cars in race conditions.
“That’s the plan,” said Russell, who handed Williams their first front row start since 2017, when asked if he would make a bid for the lead at the start.
“If it’s there for the taking we’ll go for it.”
Hamilton, who is gunning for a landmark 100th win, appeared to be on the back foot with his car set up with less downforce. That could work in his favour on Sunday, especially if track conditions are dry.
“I think we tried to strike the best balance possible,” said Hamilton.
“Maybe it’s not the best for today but we will see tomorrow exactly how good it is.”
The start of qualifying was delayed by rain. The session was then halted for about 40 minutes with just nine minutes of the final pole-position shootout to go after a heavy crash for McLaren’s Lando Norris.
The Briton, who had led the session’s opening two phases of qualifying, was the first driver to attempt a flying lap in the final part of qualifying.
With the rain having intensified, his McLaren snapped out of control while going through the fast, uphill sweep at Eau Rouge and slammed into the barriers.
Norris, who jumped out of the car, was taken to the medical center for precautionary checks and has been cleared to race.
His team mate Daniel Ricciardo offered McLaren some consolation by going fourth.
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Pritha Sarkar)